NEWTOWN, Conn. — It was just a few weeks ago that the family of one victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting learned a caseworker had been assigned to work with them following their daughter's death nearly two years ago, an advisory commission heard Friday.
The mother of one of the 20 first-graders killed in the December 2012 shooting said that lack of communication is emblematic of the confusion about what services are accessible to the families and what resources they can tap.
"It's like pulling teeth to be able to get some information," Jennifer Hensel, the mother of 6-year-old Avielle Richman told the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission. "What is available to us? We have to go knock on doors to ask."
Hensel and her husband Jeremy, and Nelba Marquez-Greene, the mother of 6-year-old Ana Marquez-Greene, expressed frustration over the communication problems they say have experience since losing their children in the mass shooting that also claimed the lives of six educators.
Marquez-Greene said she and her husband, Jimmy, have been relying on their personal health insurance to cover their family's mental health care costs.
"We feel as though we've fallen off a cliff with no safety net," Hensel testified.
Hensel complained that too many decisions were and continue to be made for the victims' families without their input. She said it is her understanding that grants awarded to the town include help for the families, but the details have not been communicated well.
The 16-member commission was created in January 2013 by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in the wake of the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting. The panel is in the final stages of piecing together its recommendations for mental health, school safety and gun violence prevention. Scott Jackson, the group's chairman, said the panel redoubled its efforts to communicate with the victims' families after some complained not enough information was reaching them.
A subcommittee helped to arrange Friday's meeting, held at the public library in Newtown, to gather additional input from the families. Some have testified previously in Hartford.
The parents said better protections need to be in place for victims' families when such incidents occur and asked the commission to recommend a victim-focused, "triage-based protocol" be developed for future events, ensuring families are kept well-informed and shielded from the media in a secured staging area. They also spoke of the need for counseling from trained mental health professionals with experience in trauma situations. Jeremy Richman said his family went through multiple counselors who couldn't emotionally handle the situation.
Marquez-Greene, a licensed marriage and family therapist, said her family would have benefited more from someone spending time in her home getting to know them and their needs. Instead, she said might get an occasional phone call from someone asking if she needed anything. But considering she was so traumatized that she couldn't remember her phone number for the first six months after Ana's death, Marquez-Greene said she didn't know what to tell the counselor.
"What we needed was presence, people to be there," she said.
Each parent stressed were grateful for the police officers assigned to them for protection and said they've remained close with the officers.
They also urged the commission to consider the My Sandy Hook Family Fund as a model for future tragedies. Unlike other organizations, they said this one acts as a singular place of contact and communication with all the victims' families.
Jackson said he expects his commission will finish its report to the governor by the end of December or January.